New York Times
August 20, 1999
Roe v. Wade Resulted in Unborn Criminals, Economists Theorize
By ERICA GOODE
No one is certain why crime rates have plummeted in the United States over the last decade. But that fact has not prevented politicians from gleefully taking credit for the downturn, or academics from ruminating endlessly on its causes.
The newest theory about why crime is down, however, put forward in a report by two highly regarded economists, is drawing both outrage and intense debate -- even before the full report has been published or subjected to peer review.
In the report, Dr. John J. Donohue 3d of Stanford Law School and Dr. Steven D. Levitt of the University of Chicago contend that a large share of the drop in crime in the 1990's -- perhaps as much as half -- can be attributed to the sharp increase in abortions after the Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade in 1973.
Fewer crimes are being committed now, the researchers say, because many of the children who might have grown up to commit those crimes were never born. Within a few years of the Roe v. Wade decision, which established a constitutional right to abortion, up to a quarter of pregnancies ended in abortion, statistics show.
Dr. Donohue and Dr. Levitt base their thesis on economic analyses of crime rates from 1985 to 1997, examined as a function of abortion rates two decades before.
The timing of the decline in crime, they found, coincided with the period when children born shortly after the Roe v. Wade decision would be reaching the late teen-age years -- the peak ages for criminal activity.
States that were the first to legalize abortion, Dr. Donohue and Dr. Levitt found, including New York, Washington, Alaska and Hawaii, were also the first to experience a decrease in crime.
For example, in states that legalized abortion in 1969 or 1970, the researchers found, the cumulative decrease in crime from 1982 to 1997 was greater than for the rest of the nation. The decrease in murder was 16.2 percent greater, the decrease in violent crime over all was 34.4 percent greater, and the decrease in property crime was 35.3 percent greater.
Also, states with the highest abortion rates, the researchers found, had larger reductions in crime than states with low abortion rates.
The most likely explanation for these findings, the researchers assert, is that abortion has occurred selectively, decreasing the number of children likely to commit crimes as adults.
"Most of the reduction," Dr. Levitt and Dr. Donohue write, "appears to be attributable to higher rates of abortion by mothers whose children are most likely to be at risk for future crime." Teen-agers, unmarried women and black women, for example, have higher rates of abortion, the researchers note, and children born to mothers in these groups are statistically at higher risk for crime in adulthood.
The economic benefit to society of abortion in reducing crime, the researchers suggest, "may be on the order of $30 billion annually."
The conclusion of the report, a draft of which was posted on a Web site of the Social Science Research Network, is not a popular one. When it was reported in The Chicago Tribune on Aug. 8, it provoked angry op-ed columns, tirades on radio talk shows and expressions of indignation by groups on both sides of the abortion divide.
And the economists have been accused of everything from promoting eugenics to recommending abortion as a means to reduce crime.
"It takes great skill to simultaneously infuriate the right and the left," said Dr. Alfred Blumstein, an expert on crime rates and University Professor at the Heinz School of Carnegie Mellon University, observing the ferocity of the response.
In a news release, Joseph Scheidler, executive director of the Pro-Life Action League, called the study "so fraught with stupidity that I hardly know where to start refuting it."
"Naturally, if you kill off a million and a half people a year," Mr. Scheidler said, "a few criminals will be in that number. So will doctors, philosophers, musicians and artists."
Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, an organization based in Washington, commented that even if the report's findings were right, "the question in a certain sense is, 'So what?'
"I don't think it has any policy implications whatsoever," Ms. Kissling said. "Abortion is a profoundly private decision" that women make based on "their own lives and circumstances," and not public benefit.
And in a recent column, Carl Rowan wrote, "I've seen a lot of far-fetched and dangerous ideas passed off as 'social research,' but none more shallow and potentially malicious than the claim that the drop in crime in the United States can be attributed to legalized abortions."
Dr. Blumstein and other criminal justice experts acknowledged that the economists may well have demonstrated that abortion rates have had an effect on crime, though until the paper is published and subjected to academic scrutiny, they said, it is difficult to assess the findings.
But they expressed skepticism that abortion's effect on crime was as great as Dr. Donohue and Dr. Levitt posited. Declining crime rates, Dr. Blumstein said, appear to be the result of many complicated factors, including the dwindling of the crack cocaine epidemic, an improved economy, greater job opportunities for low-income youth and the steady growth of the prison population.
Changing attitudes among teen-agers and innovative policing strategies may also be contributors, other experts said.
"These are very able guys," Dr. Blumstein said of Dr. Donohue and Dr. Levitt, "and I'm prepared to believe that they've discerned an effect. But I think they've gone too far in claiming that it can account for half of the decline, when there are a multitude of effects going on that are much more proximate to the situation."
Dr. David J. Garrow, a historian at Emory University and author of "Liberty and Sexuality" (University of California Press, 1998), a history of the abortion debate, called the economists' theory "interesting and original." But he questioned the researchers' knowledge of abortion history and was skeptical of the usefulness of the report.
"The policy implication of this paper is that if you renewed Medicaid funding for abortion at the Federal level, you'd dramatically reduce crime 17 years from now," Dr. Garrow said. "But are we going to find any interest group in America that is going to make that argument? No. Neither side in the debate wants to touch it with a 10-foot pole."
For his part, Dr. Levitt said in an interview that the research was "by no means a complete explanation" and that he and Dr. Donohue were aware that "the world is complicated." He added that they did not intend their work to influence public policy.
"Our paper should have little to no impact on any policy regarding abortion," Dr. Levitt said.
"There's nothing in our paper that either indirectly or directly suggests that we condone denying anyone the right to have children if they want to have children," Dr. Levitt added. "We've been accused of having a eugenic agenda and it just is not an accurate appraisal of what we're doing at all. If anything, what our paper says is that when you remove a government prohibition against a woman choosing, the woman makes choices that lead to better outcomes for her children."